Johannesburg - As the dark-room man handed over a black-and-white “contact sheet” (with thumbnail images of what was on my camera film negatives), he showed me the usable ones, ringed in red wax pencil.
There were a handful of them, from three 36-exposure rolls of Kodak Tri-X. On a once-in-a-lifetime story (the round-up and culling of wild roaming and allegedly “diseased” buffalo in the Zimbabwe Lowveld), where I was the only journalist, I had come back with little pictorially speaking.
From that, I learnt about exposures, composure and, hardest of all, the effect of “camera shake”. Because I had used too low a shutter speed, the vibrations of the air force helicopter – from which I was hanging out, shooting pictures of stampeding buffalo from just above their shoulders – had ruined my shots. The best pic, which I got with a long lens from a rocky outcrop a few hundred metres away from another round-up, was the “money shot”. It showed an Alouette chopper, nose down like an angry dragonfly, behind a thundering herd which was headed, unwittingly, into the sights of an ambush group armed with .458 rifles.
That later appeared, with my feature, in all the papers of the then-Argus group in South Africa and was later used as a cover picture on the magazine of the Switzerland-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Since those days, I’ve learnt a lot and seen the mechanics of photography change remarkably. These days, film is no more and I have been shooting digital, with a sturdy Nikon, for about six years.
But I’ve realised that, when travelling, you really need to think about what you use to capture those images of your holiday.
I have a reasonable camera and lens kit, although it is very much an entry-level set-up. I have a small zoom lens and a 100-300mm lens for the stuff that’s further away. It’s a good all-round combination for general images, but more and more these days I’m wondering if there are better options.
Travelling around South Africa, I take the full kit. This enables me to get general images of scenery and some animal close-ups.
Travelling overseas, I have learnt to leave the long lens behind. There’s not nearly as much wildlife on offer as there is here and very few touring pics need a long lens.
This has saved me quite a bit of weight, considering I also take my laptop for communication.
Now I am wondering whether or not I should ditch my camera and laptop entirely. With the advances in technology, the cameras on smartphones are capable of delivering quite acceptable holiday “happy snaps” and are often even good enough to produce images which can be used in a newspaper. Also, smartphones – and tablet devices like the iPad – can double as your laptop.
My brother-in-law Neil used his Samsung S4 smartphone exclusively on a recent cruise he and my sister did in the Mediterranean – and shot everything from still images to videos with it. I’ve also been most impressed with the quality of small, comparatively inexpensive “point and shoot” digital cameras, which sometimes have decent zoom lenses and give you better quality than a smartphone.
The photographic experts might sneer at this, but for ordinary travellers, keeping your equipment to the minimum makes a lot of sense. For overseas trips I am thinking seriously of getting a good point-and-shoot camera and an iPad. Together, they will weigh about half of what my 18mm to 70mm lens weighs alone. Which means less strain on my back.
The problem with some of the lighter and more compact solutions is that you sometimes cannot blow up the images to a large size, for framing perhaps. With my Nikon, I have produced a number of shots which I have had blown up – the most recent being a moody shot of the Camdeboo in the Eastern Cape, which now hangs as a 2mx1m photo canvas on our dining room wall.
Sadly, despite all the technology available today, holiday snaps can still bore the hell out of anyone who wasn’t there. Most people don’t edit their pics and so family and friends will be forced to sit through agonising slide shows (not so, Neil?) that contain far too much rubbish. (These slide shows are simple to organise: just transfer the images to a USB and play it through the USB slot at the back of your HD TV.)
The other reality is that holiday pics normally get looked at once and then forgotten about – and this phenomenon from the days of printed photos hasn’t got any better today… if anything, it’s got worse because digital format enables you to keep churning out images at virtually no cost.
An older reader told me a few months ago that when she travels, she doesn’t take a camera. She buys postcards at the places she wants to remember… - Saturday Star